The steady decline of our democracy post-Citizens United has most often been explained by the rise of the Super PAC and unlimited corporate election spending, but a recent decision from the Federal Elections Commission suggests things could get even worse.
In August, the F.E.C. considered a case involving an employer in Hawaii that required its employers to campaign, on their own time, for Democratic congressional candidate Colleen Hanabusa. Interestingly, the Commission’s three Democrats believed such conduct violated the Federal Election Campaign Act, which forbids employers from coercing workers to contribute to a campaign.
But the three Republican commissioners didn’t. Instead, they argued that the work was part of an independent effort by the employer, and didn’t involve contributions to the campaign itself. Therefore, the law didn’t apply. A union or corporation’s “independent use of its paid workforce to campaign for a federal candidate post-Citizen’s United was not contemplated by Congress, and consequently, is not prohibited by either the Act or Commission regulation,” the Republican commissioners held.
That means that the three Republicans on the FEC believe, thanks to Citizens United, that a corporation or union can spend unlimited dollars in an independent effort to affect the outcome of an election AND use any other resources it has access to, including employees’ time while at work and away. That means workers can now be forced to show up at political rallies for candidates they do not support whenever their bosses say or face discipline and/or dismissal.
Mark Schmitt at The New Republic sums it up perfectly.
Consider that the next time you hear an opponent of campaign finance laws describe the issue as a choice between “freedom” and regulation. In this vision of the world, the unlimited freedom of corporations means that your own rights as a citizen—to participate, or decline to participate, in the political process on your own terms—are surrendered. As the scholar Corey Robin has argued, the greatest threats to our individual liberties come not from anything the federal or state government does, but from these constraints large and small imposed by private-sector employers on their employees. (I emphasize private-sector, because it would be plainly illegal for any public agency to require non-political employees to participate in campaign activities, under state and federal civil service laws, and the same is true of non-profit charities, under tax law.)
As Schmitt points out, most employers are “at-will,” meaning employees have few, if any, avenues available to resist calls to campaign for candidates they may or may not support, on their own time. So this is not really a debate about “freedom” and “liberty” as much as it’s a debate about the concentration of wealth and the power associated with it. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.
Photo from Donkey Hotey via flickr.